U Chicago professor leads study on importance of smell for Alzheimer’s disease, dementia

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Prof. Jayant Pinto. Photo: Uchicago.edu

A person’s loss of smell could predict changes in regions of the brain important to detect Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, according to a study by researchers at the University of Chicago.

Co-authored by Professor Jayant M. Pinto, senior author of the study, the findings could prove significant for the more than 6 million Americans estimated to have Alzheimer’s disease for which there is no cure as yet.

Pinto and others studied 515 older adults over a long period of time and their findings could lead to smell-test screening to detect cognitive hearing earlier, a UChicago News report July 28, 2022, says.

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“This study provides another clue to how a rapid decline in the sense of smell is a really good indicator of what’s going to end up structurally occurring in specific regions of the brain,” Pinto, a professor of surgery at the University who studies olfactory and sinus disease, is quoted saying in the report.

While the link between sense of smell and dementia has been known for a long time, Pinto and his team set out to detect if any changes in the brain coincided with loss of sense of smell and cognitive function.

“Our idea was that people with a rapidly declining sense of smell over time would be in worse shape – and more likely to have brain problems and even Alzheimer’s itself – than people who were slowly declining or maintaining a normal sense of smell,” said lead author Rachel Pacyna, a fourth-year medical student, in the news report.

Using data from Rush University’s Memory and Aging Project (MAP), Pinto and the team found changes in the brain linked to sense of smell loss.

“We were able to show that the volume and shape of grey matter in olfactory and memory-associated areas of the brains of people with rapid decline in their sense of smell were smaller compared to people who had less severe olfactory decline,” said Pinto.

Pinto hopes these findings could be used to examine brain tissue for markers of Alzheimer’s. He also hopes to study the effectiveness of using smell tests in clinics in order to track older adults for signs of early dementia, so that new treatments can be found.

Earlier studies helmed by Pinto have examined the sense of smell’s link to declining health in older adults. His 2014 paper revealed older adults with no sense of smell were three times more likely to die within five years, the UChicago News report said.

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